Impacting everything from sleep health to hormone regulation to mental well-being and metabolism is none other than our circadian rhythm. Most commonly discussed in regard to sleep health, there’s so much more to our biological clock. In fact, this internal clock holds the power to shape our lives in ways we might not even realize! And considering the primary cue for our circadian rhythm is the presence or absence of light, it’s no surprise that modern-day technology has posed some mighty challenges and consequences for our health. Because, let’s face it, we live in a fast-paced, modernized world, where technology and artificial light (from phones, screens, and computers) consistently stimulate our senses. That’s why it’s especially crucial to understand and regulate our circadian rhythm!
Ahead, learn everything you need to know about circadian rhythm and health. What is circadian rhythm? How does it impact our well-being? And how can we improve upon and regulate this biological clock?
What is Circadian Rhythm?
Often referred to as our internal or biological clock, our circadian rhythm is an inherent biological process that regulates our sleep-wake cycle as well as various physiological and behavioral processes (including hormone production, metabolism, body temperature regulation, and even cognitive function). It’s synchronized with the 24-hour day-night cycle, and primarily influenced by external cues — mostly, the presence or absence of light.
How Our Circadian Rhythm Remains Balanced
So, without outside influence from artificial screens and stimuli, how does our circadian rhythm remain balanced? Here’s how it works.
Cortisol and Morning Energy
During the day, exposure to natural light stimulates the production of hormones like cortisol, promoting wakefulness and alertness. This morning light exposure is what helps align our circadian rhythm with the daytime hours, allowing us to be active and productive. Hence, the importance of prioritizing exposure to natural sunshine before engaging in screen time in the morning.
Melatonin and Restful Nights
As for the evening (in an ideal world, when our circadian rhythm is balanced), the opposite mechanism will take place! This means as the sun sets and the evening approaches, our bodies should naturally begin to release melatonin, a hormone that induces drowsiness and prepares us for sleep. This absence of light during the evening hours is what encourages rest and restoration, helping support the natural progression of our sleep-wake cycles. Thus, the importance of avoiding stimulating blue light at night.
But, with the prevalence of irregular schedules and artificial light from electronics, our circadian rhythm can easily become disturbed. Here’s why it matters!
Factors that Impact Our Circadian Rhythm
- Irregular sleep schedules or sleep regimes
- Chronic stress
- Overnight shift work or irregular work shifts
- Use of electronics or exposure to blue light too late in the evening
- Drinking or eating late at night
While we can’t always control our schedules or environment (think: busy schedules or jobs that require late nights), knowing the factors that impact our circadian rhythm can help us understand the potential challenges we may face and make informed decisions to optimize our sleep-wake cycles.
Circadian Rhythm & Its Effects On Our Health
In charge of regulating our sleep-wake cycles, our biological clock helps ensure we sleep soundly during the night and wake up feeling rested and energized in the morning. But, when imbalanced, research has shown our sleep health and overall health pay the price.
A study published in the journal Sleep Medicine found that individuals with irregular sleep patterns experienced more difficulties falling asleep, shorter sleep duration, and poorer sleep quality compared to those with regular sleep schedules. These disruptions not only contribute to daytime fatigue and sleepiness, but also increase the risk of mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.
While a night or two won’t make or break you, chronic sleep deprivation and circadian imbalance have been linked to an increased risk of serious health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and Type 2 Diabetes.
Research has shown that many hormones, including cortisol, melatonin, insulin, and growth hormone, follow distinct circadian patterns. Important for metabolism, immune function, and stress, we want to keep the hormones healthy and regulated! But, disruptions to the circadian rhythm can have significant effects on hormone regulation and overall health, increasing the risk for stress, impaired sleep, metabolic and immune disturbances, and other chronic health conditions.
RELATED: How Stress Affects Your Metabolism
The circadian rhythm has a significant impact on mental health, with disruptions in sleep-wake patterns and hormonal dysregulation playing a significant role. Irregular sleep schedules, jet lag, shift work, and exposure to artificial light at night can all contribute to circadian imbalance, which, in turn, affects mood, mental health, and cognitive functioning. Research has consistently shown that individuals with disrupted circadian rhythms are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Digestion and Metabolism
Our circadian rhythm affects digestion and metabolism, where it’s been shown to affect nutrient absorption, energy expenditure, and appetite regulation. Disruptions to this rhythm, with things such as late-night eating or irregular meal timings, can lead to digestive issues, weight gain, and an increased risk of metabolic disorders.
Tips to Help Support Our Body’s Circadian Rhythm
#1 Maintain a Consistent Sleep Schedule
Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day — even on weekends! Remaining consistent helps regulate your body’s internal clock and promote better sleep quality. While a late night or two won’t cause much harm, try to keep a routine as much as possible.
#2 Create a Sleep Sanctuary
Make your bedroom the ultimate sleep setup by keeping it cool, quiet, and dark. Keep phones and electronics out of the bedroom, so you’re not tempted to turn them on! You could even diffuse essential oils, play white noise, or snuggle up with a weighted blanket.
#3 Avoid Electronic Devices Before Bed
Speaking of blue light, avoid electronic devices before bed. This includes phones, laptops, computers, TVs, and anything that transmits blue light! According to research, blue light can interfere with the production of melatonin, our sleep hormone, leading to sleep disturbances and imbalances in our sleep-wake cycle.
#4 Expose Yourself to Natural Morning Light
Exposure to natural light during the day — especially, first thing in the morning — helps regulate your internal clock and promote wakefulness. Take your morning coffee outdoors, take your dog for an early morning stroll, or simply spend time outside or near windows to receive natural sunlight. This can help set your body’s internal clock and promote better sleep at night!
#5 Limit Caffeine and Stimulant Intake
Caffeine and other stimulants can interfere with your sleep quality and disrupt your circadian rhythm. Avoid consuming caffeinated beverages or foods close to bedtime, and be mindful of other stimulants, such as nicotine and alcohol, which can also affect your sleep. It’s best to limit or avoid consuming caffeine (especially coffee) in the late afternoon and evening.
#6 Move More During the Day
Whether it’s a FitOn workout, a walking meditation, or a quick office workout, squeezing in exercise during the day can help regulate your circadian rhythm and promote better sleep. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week (even if it’s broken up throughout the day). But, be mindful to avoid vigorous exercise too close to bedtime, as it may increase alertness and make it harder to fall asleep!
#7 Create a Calming Bedtime Routine
If you’re lacking a bedtime routine, here’s your sign to make one! A bedtime regime is not only calming and peaceful, but it also helps signal your body that it’s time to unwind and prepare for sleep. This could include reading, taking a warm bath, sipping on sleep-supporting herbal tea, or practicing relaxation techniques like meditation or deep breathing.
#8 Keep Stress Levels In Check
Chronic stress can disrupt your circadian rhythm and negatively impact your sleep quality. Implement stress management techniques into your everyday routine, whether it’s practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, meditating, treating yourself to a spa day, or seeking support from friends, family, or professionals when needed. You can even add stress-busting foods to your diet!
Our Body Loves Routine!
Our bodies thrive on routine, which is why implementing these simple tips into your every day can greatly support the natural functioning of our circadian rhythm. By maintaining consistent sleep schedules, creating a sleep-friendly environment, and managing factors that can disrupt our internal clock, we can help our bodies align with the natural light-dark cycle and optimize our overall well-being.